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Blue Bar No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part Three
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Two




A REGULAR HELMSMAN


Once the ship's compass had been adjusted, we dropped the Compass Adjuster and the Liverpool Pilot and proceeded to sea to join our convoy. By this time (April 1944) sailing in the Atlantic was much less of a risk than it had been even as little as one year ago. Even so, there were still plenty of "U" Boats out there, and our convoy was well protected with the usual escort of Corvettes, Destroyers, and some other larger RN ships. We had not been at sea for long before the "sealed orders" were opened, and we knew that we would be heading for Abadan. Via Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, Port Said, the Suez Canal, and Aden.

I was really thrilled that at last, I was accepted as a regular "helmsman", and no longer a "learner". Since I didn't know how difficult or easy other ships were to steer, I just accepted that St. Clears was the same as all other ships. I heard other seamen talking of "Gyro" the compasses used on some ships, but the St. Clears didn't have one, so it was an experience that I would have to wait for. In the meantime, I enjoyed the feeling of responsibility as I steered the ship. In those days, the windows of the wheelhouses on merchant ships were protected from strafing planes with large thick blocks of slabs of material that looked like tarred concrete. There were slits left for us to see the rest of the world outside. Even with this restricted vision, it was possible to see the ship ahead, and others in adjacent columns. In rough weather, it was also possible to see the bow rising and falling in the seas, and the waves breaking over the bow. I always thought this to be most spectacular. Of course, with a compass to attend to, one couldn't spend too much time admiring the weather! Such idle thoughts were better served whilst on lookout - but even there, one had to be especially alert for any signs of danger.

As a newcomer to the wheelhouse, I enjoyed my "tricks" on the wheel. Of the three men on each four hour watch, two men did an hour each on lookout, and two hours on the wheel, with the other hour on "stand by". The third man did an hour on "stand by", two hours on lookout, and then another hour on "stand by". This duty (with no turn on the wheel) was known as the "Farmer". The "Farmer" was rotated each watch so that everyone had an "easy" turn.

We hadn't been at sea for very long when one of the AB's mentioned in the messroom a novel way of steering the ship. Instead of using the wheel every time the ship went off course by one degree or so, he told us that he would let the ship go off course two or three degrees, (say, to starboard,) and then put the wheel hard over to port. As soon as the ship started to respond, he then released the "equalising valve", allowing the rudder to return to "amidships" very quickly. According to him, the ship would take some time to return to it's course, giving him more time in between using the wheel. The "equalising valve" was a valve placed in between the hydraulic pipes leading from the wheel. As the helmsman turned the wheel (say) to port, hydraulic fluid would be forced through the left hand pipe to operate the steering engine. Similarly, the same thing happened on the starboard side when the wheel was turned in that direction. The "equalising valve" was positioned between the two pipes, and connected them when it was opened. Normally, it was kept closed, and really I imagine, should only have been used by the engineers when "setting up" the steering gear. When it was opened, the wheel had no effect at all on the rudder which presumably, would either return to, or remain in the amidships position. The helmsman would then have to look at the "Tell Tale" indicator to see just what the position of the wheel was. The "Tell Tale Indicator was a brass pointer coupled to the wheel which swung in a 180 arc as the wheel was turned either way. After steering the ship for some time, it sometimes became necessary to consult the "Tell Tale" indicator to see just where the rudder was.

Such a practice had its pitfalls. In the first place, being "new" to steering, I did not want to take a chance on "cocking things up" (any more than I might otherwise have done!) Also, whilst the ship was in convoy, the Officer on watch would immediately notice any great deviation from the regular course, having the other ships (especially the ship ahead) from which to judge the ship's relative position. Finally, being new to steering, even though the scheme sounded plausible, I was not really sure that the whole thing was not one of those tricks played on younger crewmembers by the older men. I wasn't prepared to take that risk.

Happily, we remained unmolested by whatever "U" Boats there were still out there in the Atlantic, but we did receive quite a buffeting from the weather. Although the storm was not really severe, we had these large boxes containing aeroplanes on the hatches, plus the steam locomotives on deck. The Locomotives gave us no trouble, but we had to "turn to" one night to reinforce the lashings on the boxes. Being large, but not very heavy boxes, they caught the gusts of wind and whatever water was washing over the fore decks quite readily. Those on Number Three hatch had shifted due to the wind, and the rolling effects of the ship. In fact, one box had shifted a couple of feet, and had deposited itself on to the drum of one of the winches. There was no chance of moving it back to the centre of the hatch, so we made the best of it and put extra lashings on it to keep it in the position it had landed itself in. It gave us no more trouble, but on arrival at Abadan, the winch had to be stripped down and a new shaft installed.

Eventually, we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean Sea. Until the landings in North Africa in November 1942, and later the landings in Sicily and Italy, the Mediterranean had been one of the most dangerous places for merchant ships to be. The "Malta Convoys" were (and still are!) legendary for the number and ferocity of the German attacks, the numbers of seamen, both in the Royal Navy, and in the Merchant Navy, who lost their lives, and the number of merchant ships sunk whilst trying to get essential supplies to Malta. Operation "Pedestal" must surely remain as the most heavily escorted, and yet most dangerous convoy ever to put to sea. Fourteen fast merchant ships sailed from Gibraltar to Malta in August 1942, accompanied by no less than 72 Royal Naval ships including three aircraft carriers, two battleships, six heavy cruisers, 32 destroyers, numerous submarines, corvettes, and patrol boats. Of the fourteen merchant ships, nine were sunk, and five eventually made it to Malta. Those that made it to Malta were all badly damaged. Two Aircraft Carriers were sunk plus numerous other Royal Naval ships.

Now, here we were in a much less warlike Mediterranean. Even so, we were still escorted by several Royal Naval ships. Blackout precautions were just as severe as they had always been, and lookouts were kept at all times, day and night. For those of us entering the Mediterranean for the first time, it was magic. It was probably psychological, but the water did seem to be bluer than anything I had seen before. With just a bit of sea running, we had the coast of North Africa to our starboard side. It isn't always hot in April in the Mediterranean, but now the weather was warm, and a pleasant change from the cold English March weather and the cooler trip through the North Atlantic. Despite the almost placid sea conditions, and the attendant feeling of well being, sailing through this most beautiful of areas, I could not help thinking of the great dramas that were unfolding as the Allied armies were advancing in Italy, not all that far to our North. Some ships left the convoy to put into Algiers; others left the convoy to go to places like Sicily and Italy. After about a week of this almost pleasant sailing, the remainder of the convoy arrived at Port Said.

In Port Said, we tied up briefly to buoys whilst a large searchlight was placed right in the prow of the ship, and suspended, over the side, and just below the deck level. The searchlight was contained in its own box, and firmly suspended and lashed to prevent it from swinging from side to side. An employee of the Canal Company would accompany the light to make sure it was in working order when required. The beam of light would pick out reflectors placed at certain spots along the length of the canal. From the bridge, the light reflected from the buoys or other sources acted like "cats eyes" placed on the main roads. As it turned out, we traversed the canal in daylight hours, but I imagine the lights are put on all ships in case there should be a hold up, causing ships that should have travelled in daylight hours, to have to complete the journey in darkness.

It was compulsory for all ships using the canal to have such a light. Many ships that used the canal regularly had a light built in to the bow of the ship. On the Orion, one of my previous ships, a large shield like plate bearing the company crest could be swung away from the bow, exposing the built in searchlight, which was also accessible from the forepeak.

We remained tied up all night. There was no shore leave, but we did take on some stores and fresh water. In the morning, a "North Bound Convoy" appeared from the canal, and proceeded to various berths. It was almost eerie, seeing these ships emerge almost as if from the desert. With the last of the North bound ships through the canal and safely dispersed in Port Said, our convoy began to make it's way south.




My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Four: The Suez Canal



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